Between Family and State: Feminist Critiques of Womanhood in Egypt
Session III-10, 2022 Annual Meeting
On Friday, December 2 at 8:30 am
The rise of Egyptian nationalism in the 19th century and the subsequent creation of the modern Egyptian nation-state in the 20th century went hand-in-hand with the formation of feminist movements and the emergence of the nuclear bourgeois family as ideal national organizational unit. This interdisciplinary panel examines the historical intersections between the modern family and state to explain the persistence of certain discourses and practices that have come to define womanhood in the country. Some of the questions that this panel addresses are: How has feminist legal activism fought to dismantle the many assumptions underlying the masculinist state’s “gender order”? What are the historical antecedents to the current framework of “family values”? Who had the power to define the “New Woman” and with it ideas of modernity and fitness for representation in the legal and cultural spheres?
The history of the family in the Middle East only began to be written in the 1990s, and often only appears as a tangent to the history of women and gender. The national press and women’s magazines in turn-of-the-century Egypt were saturated with parenting and medical advice targeted at literate middle-class parents, as well as with discussions about the proper place of women. This project investigates the historical construction of the ideology of the modern Egyptian family by tracing the tense emergence of the mother/child dyad in relation to the early feminist project of women’s emancipation.
Taking a discursive analytic approach, I look at transformations in women’s writings about the modern Egyptian family and women’s concerns about childrearing in the semi-colonial and colonial contexts of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Egypt. Focusing on women’s contributions in the vernacular newspapers of the end of the nineteenth century, the women’s press, and the scarcely exploited children’s press, I examine how these texts participated in the creation of a canon of child-centered family ideology between 1867 and 1922. Similarly, I trace the evolution of the writings of early feminists such as Huda Shaarawi, Malak Hefny Nassef, Aisha Taimur, Nabawiyya Musa, and May Ziadeh in order to understand how they positioned their political project of emancipation in relation to a modern understanding of the mother/child dyad as the foundational category of the modern family.
I argue that women’s participation in public debates on the health and sickness of children and the related issue of their moral upbringing marked particular child and mother bodies as legitimate or illegitimate receptacles of modernity and of citizenship, working to create the child-centered family as a modern category which both enabled and limited the aspirations of early feminists.
By studying women’s writings about “The Woman Question” in relation to the then urgent question of children’s health and wellbeing, this research can contribute to the understanding of how Egypt was imagined via a lens of women’s responsibility for children’s welfare. Understanding the debates concerned with healthy motherhood/childhood in modern Egypt can further our understanding of how colonial taxonomies and nationalist aspirations appropriated the bodies of women and children and shaped their lives, and how women actively participated in and resisted these appropriations. Finally, the way in which women writers imagined their emancipatory project in relation to the New Family Ideology has had important implications for generations of Egyptian feminists.
In her book, Fi Athar Enayat al-Zayyat (In the Footsteps of Enayat al-Zayyat), Iman Mersal sets out on a quest to learn as much as possible about a little-known, talented female author who died young. Her quest quickly turns into a reflection on the challenges of writing while female at a moment and a place of major sociopolitical and economic upheavals. This paper draws inspiration from Mersal’s reflections on the misogynistic and self-serving attitudes of powerful male cultural figures towards al-Zayyat’s literary production. It examines the irony of the institutional marginalization of Egyptian women writers in the 1960s at a time when male authors were celebrated as “progressive” for publishing novels and short stories from the perspective of the “New Woman”. In doing so, this paper explores the many ways that the male gatekeepers of the cultural sphere in Egypt reflected the paradoxical ethos of the Nasserite masculinist state.
Following the brief moment of political rupture that accompanied the Arab Spring, new power-holders in Egypt embarked on a ‘masculinist restoration’ process (Kandiyoti 2016) to restore the stability of the gender order. Typically, maintaining gender stability amid contention involves violence and aggression as well as other technologies like constitutions, laws, and policies. The Egyptian ruling regime resorted to violence and the law to retain said stability.
For several years, the Egyptian regime has utilized idioms of patriarchy to rationalize its involvement in re-organizing societal interactions, which typically took the form of excessive criminalization in the law and the reinstatement of police protection. In that context, the claim to maintain ‘the family values’ is operationalized as a political and ideological project to subject women to discrimination. This project creates the category of male and female, and sets the boundaries for what is acceptable women’s behavior and was is a punishable act of transgression.
In that context, feminist legal activists engage with the regime masculinist restoration project through litigation. The feminist legal activists have been providing legal aid and filing cases in court to highlight the regime’s discriminatory practices covered under the facade of protecting ‘the family values’ notion. Using litigation, feminist legal activists interrogate the state for its involvement in subjecting women’s life to discriminatory standards; they are not seeking protection against societal discrimination. On the contrary, these feminist activists are getting directly involved in a mutually-constitutive process of re-shaping women’s lived experiences in Egypt. The research builds its findings on contextual and discourse analysis of a wealth of legal documents handed by these feminist activists in court to present their discourses on women’s subjection by the law.
The research raises a central question on the ways by which feminist legal activists, in different positions in the webs of power around the law, conduct legal activism to influence the ruling regime’s strategy to matin the stability of the gender order and to restore the masculinist conditions pertained before the Arab Spring. Through a rigorous analysis of the engagement between feminist legal activists and the ‘protecting family values’ legal regime in current Egypt, the research contributes to the literature on the interplay between feminist activism and the law, scholarship on the relationship between gender and the law, and more generally, post-Arab Spring women’s activism.